Chase Hilgenbrinck had it made — at least in the eyes of the world.
Named a high school All-American in 2000 and having played professionally both for Major League Soccer here in the United States and on the international level in Chile, the 26-year-old certainly had a promising future ahead of him.
However, the fame and prestige of a professional sports career wasn’t enough. Something was still missing. After playing left fullback for the New England Revolution this past spring, Hilgenbrinck announced his retirement from soccer in July to pursue a call to the priesthood.
On Aug. 19, he entered Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., to begin his studies for the Diocese of Peoria, Ill. He spoke with Register correspondent Eddie O’Neill from his parents’ home in Bloomington, Ill., about his journey from the soccer field to the seminary.
Did you grow up Catholic?
The Catholic faith has always been the foundation of my family life due to my parents’ — Mike and Kim — incredible devotion to the Church. My parents brought my brother and me up in the Catholic Church. They always taught my older brother, Blaise, and me about the will of God in our life and how our personal relationship with Christ would be more important and would sustain us much longer than any other activity or person in our lives.
When did you start playing soccer? When did you realize that you could play professionally?
Blaise and I started playing soccer when we were 5 years old. We played several sports when we were young, as most kids growing up in America do. I always dreamed of playing a professional sport and that became my passion.
So when I was selected to the under-17 U.S. National Team and became a high school All-American, I realized that soccer was my best bet. Blaise and I set goals to get college scholarships through soccer, playing at the division one level. We both were blessed with that opportunity, playing the same position, left fullback. Blaise played at Butler and I played at Clemson.
After college you went on to play professional soccer at the highest level in Chile. What was that experience like?
After leaving Clemson in 2004, I was signed to the team of Huachipato of the Chilean first division. I went on to play for the soccer clubs of Naval and then Ñublense, in the first and second divisions. Playing overseas certainly is a different experience than playing in the States. The stakes are much higher, and therefore the passion is multiplied. People live soccer in South America at the stadium, in their home, on the streets. You cannot escape the hype.
This passion on the field helped me to realize that I could, and should, be this passionate off the field with my faith. In fact, I felt that I should use the podium of soccer to evangelize. In ’07, as my team captivated national attention, becoming the “Cinderella” in first division, I had shirts made that read: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” I wore these shirts under my jerseys and then tossed them to fans after the games.
When did you first hear the call toward the priesthood? How would you describe the call?
In 2004, I arrived in Chile without the support base of my family and friends, which was a difficult transition for me. I was alone in a new culture, a new language and new customs. It was in those difficult times that I turned to the Catholic Church, and specifically, to my personal relationship with Christ for strength. In doing so, my faith deepened tremendously.
During deep, personal prayer, I felt God calling me to pursue a vocation in the priesthood. Then began a two-year discernment process where I received signs and confirmation that this truly was my calling. The call was persistent in my thought process and progressively got stronger until it consumed my daily thoughts. A day came when I no longer had excuses or barriers to put up of why I couldn’t be fulfilled in that role. I knew that I had nothing left to do but say Yes.
Tell me about the moment when you needed to respond concretely to this call.
One day I went to confession in Chile to a priest and a church that I had never been to. After confessing my sins, I was surprised at his reaction. He was surprisingly hard on me, saying that at 25 years old I was committing juvenile sins, and it was time for me to decide if I was going to get serious about my Catholic faith. He told me to make a decision, to quit messing around and get serious, or to just leave the Church for a while until I decided I was going to be serious.
I walked out of that confessional stunned. It was a confession like none other. I realized that it was truly a sign from God and that I needed to make the call to Father Brownsey of the Peoria Diocese as soon as possible.
What has been the reaction from the soccer world, your teammates and coaches?
Surprisingly, the soccer world has become very interested. When I told my coaches and teammates about my plans, everyone was very supportive, surprised and interested in what this call means. Interestingly, several people whom I haven’t been especially close to have opened up to me about their own faith. Their interest and openness has shown me how hungry people are to learn about God and how suppressed religion has become in society. Unless we open the door for discussion, no one will talk about it.
What is your message to those young men and women who are discerning a call to priesthood or religious life?
The first thing that I would tell them is that it will never be wrong to say Yes to God. Even if at some point they decide that the call is not for them, they will be a better person for having tried. I would also tell them to be silent and listen to God. Go to church, sit in front of the Blessed Sacrament and ask God if this is what he wants for you. Close your eyes and then be silent. He will talk to you.
Having reached my goals and fulfilled my dream of playing professional soccer, I realized that God was calling me to something greater. The best that we can give in this lifetime is to do the will of God. If we don’t do that, we will not be happy. I feel at peace in my heart, like I never felt in soccer, because I know that this is what God wants for me. “Lord, help me to want only what you want for me!”
As you enter the seminary and begin your studies, what are your worries or fears?
Thankfully, I don’t have any fear or worries. I am unbelievably excited to get started. I know that it will not be easy and that there will be difficult times. I know that if God brought me to this, he will give me the tools to excel.
Eddie O’Neill writes from
Green Bay, Wisconsin.